Burns challenges Trakas for 6th District County Council seat this November

Burns, Trakas provide you their positions on the issues

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Bob Burns, left, and Ernie Trakas, right.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, will challenge Republican incumbent Ernie Trakas in the election Tuesday, Nov. 3, to see who will take the seat representing the County Council’s 6th District.

The 6th District represents Oakville, Lemay, Green Park, Concord and Affton — more than 150,000 residents of mostly unincorporated South County.

Burns, 72, 9057 Southview Lane, has represented the 93rd District seat of Affton and Lemay in the Missouri House since 2012 and is now term-limited. He defeated opponents Alex Lange and Venki Palamand in the Democratic primaries to face Trakas.

Burns is a former St. George alderman and former Affton Board of Education member. He and his wife, Dianne, have two grown children, David and Mike.

When asked why he was seeking office, Burns said, Now more than ever, we need proactive leadership to tackle the many challenges we face. I believe that my experience can help the people of South St. Louis County, the place I have lived my entire life and the friends and neighbors I love dearly. I believe in selfless service and believe my public service and community involvement attests to that. Serving as County Councilman will allow me to continue to be of service to the people.”

Trakas, 70, 3900 Butler Hill Road, has served as the 6th District representative since first being elected to the post in 2016.

Trakas is married to his wife, Lori, a former Mehlville Board of Education member, and works as an attorney with Evans & Dixon. He has one adult daughter, Allyson.

When asked why he was seeking re-election, Trakas said, “To serve the public and my community.”

The candidates gave the following responses to The Call’s candidate questionnaire:

Do you believe the St. Louis County Planning Commission is responsive to county residents? How long should appointees serve on the Planning Commission? Is there anything about the zoning process that should change?

Burns said, “Any commission is only as good as the people appointed to it. I will see that appointees are qualified and without conflicts of interest. As long as members have done a good job, I don’t see why they couldn’t be considered for reappointment. I do believe the most important aspect of the zoning process is to make sure the public is aware and given adequate opportunity to give their input.”

Trakas said, “In many instances, no. District 6 is 90-plus percent unincorporated. As such, the Commission has power over the entirety of District 6. Over the years this power has been abused to exploit District 6 zoning for the benefit of non-District 6 developers and landowners. To correct this, membership on the Commission must be limited to individuals who live in unincorporated regions of the county and should be limited to two-year terms subject to reappointment within 90 days.”

Would you support St. Louis City entering the county as a municipality? What effect would that have on the 6th District?

Burns said, “No. Eliminating the county offices which exist in the city could place an undue burden on St. Louis County and dilute the voting power of county residents in the selection of a county executive, County Council members and assessor.”

Trakas said, “No. I do not support such an idea for all the reasons I’ve already identified. Moreover, St. Louis city entering the county as a municipality would likely result in District 6 being subject to one political party rule forever. In addition, it would render the council permanently subject to one-party rule.”

What aspects of county government would you improve?

Burns said, “First and foremost would be better two-way communications, including citizen surveys to get feedback. Second would be constituent responsiveness when someone calls with a complaint. Being retired, I will be a full-time County Councilman available every day. I would also avail myself of information sources on best practices of other counties to keep up on the latest in emerging technologies and ideas to better serve the public.”

Trakas said, “One of my second-term priorities is to complete the remaking of the St. Louis County Municipal Court system to establish a Problem Property court and designated Problem Property Unit within the county counselor’s office, both of which I was working on prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, restructuring of the Planning Commission requiring that membership on the commission be limited to residents of unincorporated St. Louis County.”

Should North County receive more funds/attention from county government than South County?

Burns said, “All parts of St. Louis County should be treated equally. The 6th District of South St. Louis County has not received its fair share of expenditures.”

Trakas said, “No. Both North and South County face challenges as predominately unincorporated. There is simply no justification to conclude that North County deserves more funding. In fact, I remain committed to assuring that District 6 receives a designated, specific percentage of funds generated by taxes paid to the county by River City Casino.”

What should be done reform-wise after the findings of the state auditor?

Burns said, “From what I have seen of the state auditor’s report, it was very disturbing and laid much of the blame for the corruption which occurred under the former county executive on a lack of oversight by the County Council. As councilman, I will work to have the County Council perform its critical role of oversight of county spending. We must hold everyone accountable for how public tax dollars are spent.”

Trakas said, “More and aggressive oversight of county government by the council. Also, revision of the Charter and adoption of, and/or amendment of appropriate ordinances to clearly establish the qualifications and job duties and responsibilities of the county auditor.”

Would you associate with someone who is accused of making racist jokes?

Burns said, “As a state representative my votes have always been for a more just and equitable society. Those who know me vouch for my sincerity in treating everyone with respect. It is unfair to call anyone a racist because of who they spoke with when they themselves have demonstrated in their own life what’s important. I condemn the use of racist language or jokes.”

Trakas said, “No.”

Should the St. Louis County police keep its current levels of funding or be defunded? Should 100 officer positions be cut in 2021?

Burns said, “I am vehemently and steadfastly opposed to defunding our St. Louis County Police. Officers should not be cut. Ours is one of the most professional and highly accredited departments. The men and women of the St. Louis County Police Department put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. Without adequate funding I believe crime would accelerate, putting residents at risk and hurting property values.”

Trakas said, “The police must not be defunded in any way. With the inevitable loss of sales tax revenue the county will be challenged to maintain current funding, but we must do everything we can to do so. No reduction in police staffing should be considered.”

Will you treat county employees with respect?

Burns said, “My entire public career I have always treated public employees with respect, as I have everyone. The harassment charges against my opponent cost county taxpayers $60,000 plus attorney fees defending him. There is also evidence on a recording of the County Council from 12/17/2019 where at about 50 minutes and 50 seconds in, Councilman Trakas goes off on a public employee, screaming at her in public in a very unprofessional manner. This cannot be tolerated. Any elected public official must set an example and treat everyone with respect.”

Trakas said, “Yes.”

Read on for web-exclusive questions and answers.

What issue do you consider the single most important issue in this race and why?

Burns said, “The first job of government is to protect its citizens. Protecting our families by keeping South County as crime-free as possible is job one. We can do that by working to support a strong, responsive and professional St. Louis County Police Department. Keeping our community safe also helps to protect our property values.”

Trakas said, “Continued protection of District 6 from abuse and exploitation by county government in Clayton.”

Other issues you perceive in your race and your position on each:

Burns said, “The people deserve a County Councilman who listens and acts on their concerns. We must also help our small businesses to recover and encourage economic development. Another major issue is maintaining our streets and infrastructure by seeing that South St. Louis County receives its fair share of county funds. I will also work diligently to end pay-to-play politics and corruption in county government.”

Trakas said, “Loss of tax revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting priority that the County Council demonstrate fiscal discipline to maintain county solvency and achieve efficiencies and operational savings in county government; continued focus on finding and exposing corruption in government.”

Previous 6th District council members have been involved in corruption schemes in St. Louis County government. What will you do to prove to 6th District residents that you are not violating the public trust as some of their other public officials have?

Burns said, “My previous public service in local government, 12 years on a school board and nearly eight years as a state representative, demonstrate my sincere desire for selfless public service. I have been, and will continue to be, my own man. Just as I have been a full-time state representative, I intend to be a full-time County Councilman and not rely on outside employment which could cause any potential conflict. Some occupations, such as my opponent’s, provide potential conflicts of interest the public might never be able to see. That is because as an attorney, he is not required to reveal his clients or how much he is paid by those clients.”

Trakas said, “I personally led the investigation into the very corruption of former District 6 councilman and County Executive Steve Stenger that resulted in his resignation, indictment and imprisonment. I will continue my relentless commitment to finding and exposing corruption at every level of government.”

Should the council hold evening meetings? Do you agree with the 2020 decision to hold some council meetings during the day?

Burns said, “The County Council is not some private club. The members serve at the pleasure of the citizens and should hold evening meetings when more people who work for a living can attend.”

Trakas said, “Council meetings are better attended and accessible to more citizens when they are held in the evening. This is why I was against the decision to hold council meetings during the day when most people are working and unable to attend.”

Do you plan to accept campaign contributions from developers with projects before the council? Should council members vote on rezoning and development projects submitted by campaign contributors?

Burns said, “I believe in respecting the voters who by a 74-percent majority imposed campaign donation limits. That is the best safeguard against pay-to-play schemes. I have never, and will never, allow any vote of mine to be influenced by a donor.”

Trakas said, “I never have and never will accept contributions from developers who have current projects that are planned or pending in District 6. This is an open and obvious conflict of interest. At a minimum council members should be required to disclose campaign contributions from developers before voting on projects promoted by developers.”

Do you agree with the county executive’s mask mandate?

Burns said, “Decisions driven by following Centers for Disease Control guidelines make sense. Mask mandates are preferable to closing small businesses. We owe it to the most vulnerable in our society, to seniors and those with underlying conditions, some all too common such as diabetes, to do what we can to slow the spread of infections until a safe and effective vaccine can be brought on-line. Let’s beat this pandemic and learn to be better prepared for any future public health emergencies. That should include the county, in cooperation with area hospitals and our first responders, stockpiling critical American made supplies, so that we will never be at the mercy of foreign supply chains.”

Trakas said, “No. I believe the county executive has over-reached in the imposition of his executive orders concerning the public health crisis. The rights of individual residents to make their own decisions regarding their health and well-being should be considered prior to imposing sweeping mandates.”

What measures, if any, will you propose to encourage economic development in South County?

Burns said, “The county should offer microloans to those needing start-up financing of their own business. We should create a small business incubator center in South County and create an innovation district with incentives for start-ups like the Cortex District in St. Louis. Also, listen to the concerns of businesses and help local small businesses to expand.”

Trakas said, “I will continue to attract appropriate development for District 6. My focus on appropriate development over the past four years has generated multiple single-family home developments, the new St. Louis Children’s Hospital Specialty Care Center at Interstate 55 and Butler Hill Road, 9 Mile Garden, R&S Machining headquarters, Sentinel Emergency Solutions, Rosalita’s Cantina, Cardinal Glennon Pediatrics, Sylvan Spring Senior Living Facility, Fairfield Inn by Marriott, Fitz’s Root Beer, to name a few.”

Are cuts needed to balance the county’s budget? Should the tax rate be raised?

Burns said, “With the current economic downturn due to COVID-19, the county budget is constrained, but so are the finances of the public, so I am against raising taxes. If cuts are needed in the meantime, I would work to make sure essential services such as health and public safety are maintained.”

Trakas said, “Yes, cuts are necessary to balance the budget. With sales tax revenue depressed due to the pandemic, and before any thought is given to raising taxes, all savings and operational efficiencies in county government must be identified and achieved.”

Should the County Council have its own attorney besides the county counselor?

Burns said, “As long as the county counselor is clear that they are to serve the needs of the County Council and county executive equally, then there is no need for the added expense of a second attorney.”

Trakas said, “Yes. Recent history demonstrates that the county counselor cannot serve two masters — the county executive and the council. The county Charter should be amended to provide for a council attorney and staff to assist the council in drafting legislation and representing the council in inevitable disputes and differences with the county executive.”

How will you make zoning decisions? Will you rely on resident feedback, or other factors?

Burns said, “I will rely heavily on resident feedback and when that is split, then I will base my decision on what is best for the community. Development should not be allowed that will cause hardship to neighbors or decrease their property value. Conditional-use restrictions can also be placed on new developments to make sure developers don’t make promises which aren’t kept.”

Trakas said, “I will continue to do as I have done for the past four years — make all zoning decisions based on the interests of the residents most directly affected by a proposed zoning change.”

What is your opinion of the leadership of County Executive Sam Page?

Burns said, “There will be times we agree on a particular issue and times we will disagree. But, the County Council and county executive should be able to work together and resolve differences in a professional manner for the good of the residents of St. Louis County.”

Trakas said, “Sam Page undertook the leadership of St. Louis County under unprecedented circumstances — the indictment, conviction and resignation of the previous county executive, Steve Stenger. Assuming leadership on short notice in those circumstances would be challenging enough, but in addition, Mr. Page has had to lead through a pandemic. While I strongly disagree with many of his decisions, particularly concerning the pandemic, I believe Sam Page has performed satisfactorily.”

Do you agree with the way St. Louis County handled the coronavirus response? Should the council have more oversight on funds?

Burns said, “The County Council should never give up its responsibility to provide oversight to the spending of local tax dollars or federal grants. We have seen at the state level that the governor has spent $800,000 so far on an out-of-state consultant to advise the state on how to spend money for the COVID-19 response. That same level of expertise was available right here from BJC, SSM, Washington University and others. I would like to see them provide input and guidance to the County Council. It is my understanding there are still considerable federal funds left in St. Louis County. I would also like to see if they can be used to stockpile American-made PPE (personal protective equipment) for our area hospitals and first responders against the threat of future public health emergencies.”

Trakas said, “I believe the county executive has overreached in his response to and handling of the coronavirus. The shutdown of county businesses, places of worship, schools, youth sports, et cetera, have not been handled properly, consistently or equitably. Similarly, the distribution of CARES Act funds has been poorly managed. This is why I voted against giving the county executive exclusive control over $173.5 million.”

Would you support a city-county merger with St. Louis? Why or why not?

Burns said, “I am very opposed to a city-county merger. The public would not be served by creating larger bureaucracies more removed from their control. There are big money interests that keep pushing this, but I will stand up to defend the best interests of the residents of South St. Louis County.”

Trakas said, “No. Unless and until the city of St. Louis enters into and successfully comes out of bankruptcy proceedings to rid itself of the debt it has incurred over decades of mismanagement and poor government, a merger cannot and will not benefit the residents of St. Louis County. Similarly, until the city effectively deals with crime and can present itself as an asset instead of a liability, a merger cannot be considered.”

What is your position on incorporation?

Burns said, “I believe in respecting the will of the people. The 6th County Council District I believe has the largest number of unincorporated residents in St. Louis County. Those communities that disincorporate often do so because they cannot financially continue to serve their residents. Whether to incorporate or not should remain in the hands of the citizens.”

Trakas said, “In St. Louis County, small government works better for and is more responsive to citizens. A county district typically has approximately 170,000 residents. District 6 is more than 90 percent unincorporated. That means that one person represents all 170,000 people. Unless the councilperson has the skills, ability and proven commitment to spend the time necessary to protect and serve the residents of his or her district, thousands of voices will go unheard and unprotected. That is why this election is so important.”

What will you do to reform the county jail following inmate deaths and leadership turnover?

Burns said, “Following an internal affairs investigation it appears there was a lack of urgency in responding to the inmates’ health issues. It appears from follow-up news reports that new procedures have been put in place, but that a staffing shortage of nurses may still persist. I would want to see that the staff issues have been corrected and ask for an outside assessment of the changes to see if they are sufficient to protect the lives of those in custody.”

Trakas said, “I will continue to work with the Justice Services Advisory Committee in seeking to establish all appropriate policies and regulations to address leadership, operations and culture at the Justice Services Center. This includes assuring that the next director of the center is the right person to lead the center and its employees, while assuring appropriate treatment of detainees.”

Are you satisfied with the spending of St. Louis County’s Proposition P sales tax funds so far?

Burns said, “No. Promises were made to the voters to have two officers per car, additional training and new district stations which have not happened. Voters approved Prop P with 63 percent in April of 2017 based on those promises. Instead money has been squandered and diverted to an expanded definition of ‘policing.’ I have called for a state audit and as County Councilman will work to get a full accounting for the public.”

Trakas said, “All appropriate entities for receipt of Prop P funds have been established, and no further encroachment of Prop P movies should be considered or adopted. Items such as two officers per vehicle, body cameras and recruiting and employment of additional officers should be priorities in 2021 and beyond.”

What will you do to oversee spending from Proposition P?

Burns said, “I will ask for a full accounting of how Prop P funds have been spent, and seek to have them only spent as they were originally intended for those things the public was promised.”

Trakas said, “Continued commitment to council oversight during the annual budget process. Also, assuring that defunding of the county Police Department is never an option.”

What is the biggest issue facing St. Louis County today? What will you do to fix it?

Burns said, “St. Louis County has been the economic engine of the state, and small business is a big part of that engine. COVID-19 has hurt many small businesses, some of which have now closed and won’t reopen. We need to help small businesses to recover and work with them on ways they can remain open safely, with microloans to help them reconfigure and help customers feel safe. We also must stop jobs from being lost to other regions to make sure there are good jobs here that pay a living wage with benefits. We also need to stop the deterioration of neighborhoods and blight caused by out-of-state absentee landlords.”

Trakas said, “The loss of tax revenue due to COVID-19 is the biggest issue. I am committed to fiscal responsibility and to finding savings and operational efficiencies in county government.”

What are your thoughts on how the current County Council is operating? Do you support the decisions of the current Democratic council majority?

Burns said, “The County Council is too closed. There is also too much partisan bickering. I believe the needs of the people should come before politics. We need to forget about national agendas, roll up our sleeves, and get to work solving real problems that impact the lives of our citizens every day.”

Trakas said, “From 2017 through 2019 the Council operated collaboratively. Putting party and ideology aside in the pursuit of transparency and the uncovering of corruption, the council proved itself an effective body. Sadly, that chemistry and commitment to a higher purpose is no longer present. I do not support the decisions of the current majority. It is emblematic of what happens when you put party before people.”

If elected, will you accept campaign contributions from developers with projects pending or recently approved in the 6th District?

Burns said, “When elected, I would not solicit funds from developers with current projects pending before the council.”

Trakas said, “No.”

Would you vote for a new countywide sales tax supporting early-childhood education, or any other purpose? Are sales taxes high?

Burns said, “Many preschools are private businesses and should not be subsidized with public tax dollars. I believe in early childhood education, but would prefer our public schools look for ways to provide expanded access. Given the current economic climate, I cannot support an increased sales tax, which is a regressive tax, and falls heavier on those of limited means.”

Trakas said, “Absolutely not. Sales taxes are already too high in St. Louis County.”